The Devil in the White City: Book Thoughts

The Devil in the White City is my favorite book by one of my favorite authors, and the topic of my first “Book Thoughts” post.  Author Erik Larson writes “narrative nonfiction,” meaning history that reads like a novel.  He picks amazing stories as topics, usually showing intertwined relationships between two or more threads and how, in detail, they develop together over time.  The Devil in the White City, on the surface is a story of the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, a spectacular event that “recorded 27.5 million visits, this when the country’s total population was 65 million.”  It’s hard to image anything in modern times that rivals the Fair’s sheer scale and novelty.  At the fair, visitors “tasted a new snack called Cracker Jack and a new breakfast food called Shredded Wheat. Whole villages had been imported from Egypt, Algeria, Dahomey, and other far-flung locales, along with their inhabitants.”[1]  The Fair also originated other American traditions, such as an early version of the Pledge of Allegiance.

The Fair was also a contrast of two Chicagos: “The Black City to the north lay steeped in smoke and garbage, but here in the White City of the fair visitors found clean public bathrooms, pure water, an ambulance service, electric streetlights, and a sewage-processing system.”[2]  But behind the scenes of the Fair is a contrast of geniuses, and although Larson doesn’t appear to be a religious person, the book shows in this contrast that the gifts God has given you aren’t nearly as important as what you do with them.  While the book is about genius, the lesson could apply to any type of talent, echoing 1 Corinthians 13, where spiritual gifts are described as being useless if you have not love.

For Chicago, the Fair was an opportunity to upstage New York and other major U.S. cities. It was the boasting of Chicagoans, “not the persistent southwesterly breeze, that had prompted New York editor Charles Anderson Dana to nickname Chicago ‘the Windy City.’”[3]  Once Chicago won the right to hold the fair, it needed a man to run it, “to build a railroad within the fairgrounds to transport steel, stone, and lumber to each construction site…to manage the delivery of supplies, goods, mail, and all exhibit articles sent to the grounds by transcontinental shipping companies…He would need a police force and a fire department, a hospital and an ambulance service. And there would be horses, thousands of them – something would have to be done about the tons of manure generated each day.”[4]

This man was Daniel Burnham, who may not be familiar to many now, but at the time he was rich enough that he “bought a barrel of fine Madeira and aged it by shipping it twice around the world on slow freighters.”[5]  Before the fair, he was an innovator in skyscraper construction and urban planning, and was highly motivated by rejections from Harvard and Yale earlier in life to prove that he was the “greatest architect in the city and country,” as he once wrote to his mother.  The book covers many stories of difficulties faced and overcome, by Burnham and his staff of thousands.

In contrast to Burnham and his many brilliant architects and engineers was “Dr. H. H. Holmes”, a serial killer who set up near the fair, seducing visitors into his “Castle.”  Holmes saw his victims as mere “material” to be exploited, then disposed of, yet was able to cry at will and draw people – especially young women – with a gentle touch and piercing blue eyes.  Financed by an elaborate series of ruses and shell games, Holmes built his “Castle,” apparently a hotel and retail space that took up a full city block, but whose real purpose for Holmes was to lure, and process his “material.”  Inside were hidden passageways and rooms, gas chambers and bespoke crematory kilns.  Although appalling, Holmes’ achievements can only be described as genius, however put to nefarious uses.

Within this elaborate and expertly told story lies one more…

To “Out-Eiffel Eiffel”
Chicago’s Fair organizers knew that their Fair could only be a complete success if they included something as awesome as what was unveiled at the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris: “At the heart of the exposition stood a tower of iron that rose one thousand feet into the sky, higher by far than any man-made structure on earth. The tower…assured the eternal fame of its designer, Alexandre Gustave Eiffel.”

Therefore, “Something novel, original, daring and unique must be designed and built if American engineers are to retain their prestige and standing.”[6]  Chicago, and the country, “needed an opportunity to top the French, in particular to ‘out-Eiffel Eiffel.’”[7]  A formerly unknown engineer from Pittsburgh – although another genius – took this to heart, and the idea came to him “like an inspiration,” however it met much resistance from other engineers who said it could not be built, at least not safely.  This “complex assemblage of 100,000 parts…ranged in size from small bolts to the giant axle, which at the time of its manufacture by Bethlehem Steel was the largest one-piece casting ever made.”[8] Larson reveals what this structure was late in the book, and the way the story is told is one of many reasons The Devil in the White City is one of my favorite books.  Check it out, and remember, genius isn’t everything, but the gifts God has given you aren’t nearly as important as what you do with them.

[1] Larson, Erik. The Devil in the White City.  (2003).  P. 5
[2] P. 247
[3] P. 14
[4] P. 76
[5] P. 26
[6] P. 156
[7] P. 15
[8] P. 193